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Uriah Davenport and the Psalm Singers of Rushton, Staffs

by Nigel Tringham

Reprinted from an article in West Gallery no.5, Summer 1993

The chapelry of Rushton, part of the extensive parish of Leek in the moorlands of Staffordshire, supported a flourishing society of psalm singers and a church band in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and seats for the singers and instrumentalists still survive in the west gallery of Rushton church (1). The seats are especially interesting because sets of initials (some picked out with brass nails) belonging to the performers have been carved into them. They include those of the teacher and composer, Uriah Davenport.

Rushton Spencer Chapel

Rushton Spencer Chapel from the south east (2)
Illustration by Gordon Ashman.

Uriah Davenport
Little is known about Davenport's personal life. He was born circa 1690, probably in the Rushton chapelry, where he died aged 94 in 1784; it was noted in the chapel's register that he had 'taught psalmody at Rushton for upwards of 60 years' (3). He married Mary Smith in Rushton chapel in 1724 and three of their children were baptised there in the 1730s (4). His home in 1747 was at Flashcrofts, a farmhouse on the bank of the River Dane in Heaton township (5). Nationally, Davenport is known for his book The Psalm-Singer's Pocket Companion, printed and published in London in 1758. It opens with instructions for those wishing to learn how to sing church music, and includes four-part scores for most of the metrical psalms and for the canticles, nine anthems, and seven hymns. The preface makes no reference to his career, beyond stating that he had been a teacher for 'many years'. He is one of the first compilers of such works to claim authorship for most of his material (6).

The New Way of Singing Psalms
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries psalms were the chief musical feature of Anglican services, hymns only becoming popular (indeed, only permissible in the liturgy) in the nineteenth century, and Davenport was one of several teachers who, from the late seventeenth century, promoted the reform of the way in which the metrical psalms were sung. A band of singers was established at Rushton almost certainly in 1719, the date accompanying four sets of initials carved into the west gallery benches. Altogether five benches contain a total of 15 sets of initials, of which a further two have dates (1744 and 1758), presumably indicating the time when new people joined the society. There was evidently a sixth bench, part of which (with at least two sets of initials) has been re-used as a shelf underneath a seat of more recent date (7).

Davenport would have been 29 years old in 1719. He may well have been the chief organiser of the group, and it is interesting to speculate whether his own interest in music was influenced by the two singing masters who came to Leek in 1716 to teach 'by note' (8). Somewhat unusually, the Rushton society of singers included a leading member of the local community: the initials 'W. A.', which are carved on the gallery benches (in two places) with the inscription 'Esq.', belong to William Armett of Tofthall, in Heaton, sheriff of Staffordshire in 1764 (9).

Instruments and Expenses
At first the singers presumably sang unaccompanied and had few expenses; once instrumentalists were introduced, however, costs had to be met. The participants evidently bore part of the burden themselves, but small amounts of money were also provided from church funds, as happened in other churches where there were psalm singers. At Rushton in the early nineteenth century, however, much larger sums came to be paid to the singers, and the church is exceptional in Staffordshire for its public support of music-making. The evidence comes from a volume of chapelwardens' accounts covering the period from 1756 to 1828 (10).

The first notice of money being spent on music occurs in the account for 1765/6, which records 7s for seven reeds and 7s 6d for a flute. Small amounts continued to be paid out in subsequent years, generally on reeds and strings, the 1777/8 account mentioning both a viol and a bass viol. The following year (1778/9) the church spent £1 11s 6d on a 'hautboy' (oboe), and in 1786/7 another Uriah Davenport was given 4s for repairing and 'gluing' the bass viol, for which a case was purchased in the following year. A new bass 'fiddle' and stick cost £1 16s 0d in 1789/90, and in 1800/1 a new bassoon was bought for £3 0s 0d. No further items of expenditure on music were entered in the accounts for the rest of the decade, but in 1809 the vestry meeting at Easter agreed to allow the singers an annual stipend of £2 10s 0d 'towards buying and keeping their music in repair' (11). That figure was still being paid in 1815/6, when in addition £1 10s 0d was spent on a clarinet. The singers' bill in 1816-17 and again in 1817-18 was £3 11s 8d, presumably comprising their regular stipend along with other expenses. The stipend was increased to £4 0s 0d in 1818.

Extra expenses in the 1820s included £2 0s 0d for a fiddle and 9s 6d for a clarinet mouthpiece (1822/3), and £3 10s 0d for a clarinet (1823/4). Furthermore, when the church celebrated its wake in August, money was spent on drink both for its own singers and for singers from neighbouring churches at Bosley and Wincle (Cheshire). In the final year for which accounts survive (1827/8) support for the singers amounted to half the church funds: besides the singers' £6 0s 0d (evidently representing an increased stipend), £3 10s 0d was spent on a bugle and £2 10s 2d on refreshments for the singers at various times. When the vestry met to pass the accounts at Easter 1828, their generosity excelled itself and the singers' stipend was raised to £8 0s 0d. Because of the lack of further records, it is not possible to say how much longer the church was able to sustain such high levels of expenditure.

It is puzzling that when the archdeacon of Stafford, George Hodson, reported on the Rushton chapel in 1830 during the course of his archidiaconal visitation, he noted the west gallery but not the singers (12). Generally, Hodson recorded the use of galleries by singers, but he may not have been consistent. It seems unlikely that a group of singers, so vigorous in 1828, had been disbanded by 1830.

The usual reason for the demise of groups of psalm singers was the change of emphasis to congregational singing with the introduction of choirs in the chancel, often indicated by the installation of an harmonium or organ. At Endon, south-west of Leek and not far from Rushton, there was still an active society of psalm singers in 1858; evidently, they only became redundant following the introduction of an harmonium in 1862 (13). Stringed instruments were retained at Meerbrook chapel, east of Rushton, until 1864, when an harmonium was installed following the death of the previous long-serving, and presumably conservative, incumbent (14).

Map of the area around Rushton Spencer

Map of the area around Rushton Spencer.
Drawn by Gordon Ashman.

A Dispute in the ranks
It is not known how the Rushton singers organised themselves, apart from details recorded when a dispute in their ranks was settled in 1785 (15). Two societies of singers then agreed to sing on alternate Sundays, each group promising to hand over to the other all the instruments and books which belonged to the church so that they could perform. Whether the two groups were rivals because they had adopted different methods of singing or because of personal animosities is unknown. It may be significant that the row took place immediately after the death of Uriah Davenport. At any rate, the agreement reveals that there was no shortage of musical talent in the chapelry, a suitable memorial to Davenport as a teacher.

Besides maintaining the society at Rushton, Davenport almost certainly travelled to other churches to give lessons in psalm singing. At present it is not possible to say whether he confined himself to the north Midlands or went further afield. Future research may show whether or not his influence was widespread. For the time being it is pleasant to be able to give some account of his musical origins, down to the very seat in which he sat in his own church.

© Nigel Tringham

1) The chapelry comprised three townships: Heaton, Rushton James, and Rushton Spencer. The church, dedicated to St Lawrence, stands in Rushton Spencer in an isolated position overlooking the Leek-Macclesfield road. back
2) Taken from a drawing made by J. Bucklet in 1844, kindly supplied by the William Salt Library, Stafford (WSL Staffs Views, viii.123). back
3) Staffordshire Record Office, D.1109/3, burial of 17 March 1784. back
4) Staffordshire Record Office, D.1109/1, pp. 46, 65, 69, 74. back
5) Lichfield Joint Record Office, B/V/6/Rushton, 1747. The farmhouse no longer exists. back
6) Temperley, Nicholas (1979) The Music of the English Parish Church, vol. 1, (Cambridge, 1979), p. 178. back
7) Another two benches are also of more recent date. back
8) An account of the convincement and call to the ministry of Margaret Lucas. (1797), p. 9. back
9) Staffordshire Historical Collections, (Staffs. Record Society 1912), p. 291, back
10) Staffordshire Record Office, D.3566/3/1. back
11) Staffordshire Record Office, D.3566/3/1. back
12) Visitations of the Archdeaconry of Stafford 1829-1841, wd. D.Robinson (Staffs. Record Society, 4th series, vol. x, 1980, p. 97. back
13) Staffordshire Record Office, D.4302/5/1-2; William Salt Library, grangerised Sleigh, ii, f. 285. back
14) Lichfield Diocesan Church Calendar (1864), p. 147; (1865), record of diocese during 1864, p. ii. back
15) Staffordshire Record Office, D.3566/3/1. back

For a fuller article, see "The psalm singers of Rushton Spencer" in Staffordshire Studies, 10 (Keele, 1997), pp.49-57.

Music files:
Hymn for Christmas Day ("While Shepherds watched"): facsimile - MIDI
Hymn for Easter ("Mourn, mourn ye saints"): MIDI
Anthem from Psalm 150("O, praise God in his holiness"): MIDI


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